By Francis M. Smith
Q: What exactly does the term “slip and fall” mean, legally?
A: Although it sounds more like plain English than legal jargon, “slip and fall” is a legal term that refers to a particular scenario in tort law. ("Tort law" simply refers to civil justice and remedies provided, as compared to criminal justice.) Slip and fall lawsuits involve cases in which the injured plaintiff suffering an accident in which they slipped or tripped and fell on a property belonging to another person or entity (who would be the defendant(s) in the case). In these cases, the defendant may be held liable, or legally responsible, for the plaintiff's injuries if the defendant was negligent in a way that breached the duty of care he owed to the plaintiff.
Q: What kinds of conditions can cause slip and fall accidents?
A: In my practice I have seen slip and fall cases with a wide variety of causes, and there are too many possible tripping and slipping hazards to list exhaustively. In outdoor situations, accumulations of ice and snow, cracked pavement, uneven sidewalks, and open manholes are just a few potential slip and fall hazards. Indoors, bunched carpeting, overly waxed floors, spilled liquids, electrical cables, and debris piled on stairs are potential culprits. Even inadequate lighting can result in a trip and fall accident, if it's too dark to see the placement of a curb at night. The injuries that result from these accidents can be short-term problems like a sprained ankle or broken bone, or more serious issues including traumatic brain injury and spinal damage.
Q: Who are all the potential defendants in my slip and fall case?
A: In many slip and fall cases, there can be more than one party who may bear some liability for the plaintiff's injuries. Identifying all possible defendants is important in the event your case goes to court. Anyone named as a defendant in a slip and fall case must have some connection to, or influence over, the circumstances that resulted in your injury. For instance, if you were injured in a retail store that rents its location from another party that owns the building, both the property owner and the business that rents the property may be defendants in your injury case. If a store has a contractor to clear snow and treat ice, both the store and the contractor may be defendants if you slip and fall on untreated ice.
Q: What is “constructive notice” of a hazardous condition?
A: Constructive notice is another way of saying that, if the property manager were exercising reasonable care for the property, he should have known about the hazard; this generally means that the hazard needs to have existed long enough for a reasonably careful person to discover it. If the danger existed long enough for a reasonably careful individual under comparable circumstances to have discovered it, the property manager has a duty of care to fix the dangerous condition, or warn visitors of it.
Q: What is a sweep log?
A: To protect their customers from slip and fall hazards, and to protect themselves in the event of a premises liability case, many retail stores and other businesses maintain a sweep log, a document used to record and verify the frequency of inspections made to discover spills, debris, or other potential slip and fall hazards on the flooring surface. Employees are generally trained to walk the aisles of their store at regular intervals looking for such debris, and sign or initial the sweep log to document the inspection. In the event that a visitor suffers a slip and fall injury, the business can produce the sweep log to demonstrate that they were taking reasonably careful action to discover and clean up any hazards, and thereby defend themselves from an accusation of negligence.
Q: What if I fall in a private residence?
A: If your fall took place while you were on a social visit to the homeowner, you may be able to pursue a slip and fall case against their insurance. The duty of care that a homeowner has toward social guests is less demanding than the duty owed by a business owner to customers. A homeowner merely has to warn guests of any known dangers that are not obvious; he is not required to seek out or discover dangers that were not previously known to him. But if the homeowner knew of a potential danger that a visitor might not immediately recognize as such, and failed to warn the visitor, the homeowner may be deemed negligent.
Q: How much will hiring a slip and fall attorney cost?
A: When you retain an attorney to represent you in a slip and fall or trip and fall case, it usually costs you no attorneys fees at all, unless and until the attorney recovers damages for you. Then the fee is a percentage (in New Jersey, usually one third) of the recovery after paying back whoever paid the expenses incurred which include court filing fees, payments to expert witnesses, and other costs associated with collecting evidence for your claim. The big risk therefore becomes the attorney's, since he or she gets paid nothing if there is no recovery. This is why an attorney is understandably very careful about which slip and fall and trip and fall cases are accepted for representation. The appropriate proofs must be present to make a case, or reasonably available.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.